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Thanksgiving: A Jewish Perspective

Thanksgiving: A Jewish Perspective

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We, the American citizenry, are a thankful lot. Our calendar is dotted with days when we express our gratitude to various individuals and entities. On Veterans Day, we thank the members of the Armed Forces for their dedicated service. On Memorial Day, we show our gratitude to those courageous men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending our liberties and democratic lifestyle. On Labor Day, we express our appreciation to the industrious American workforce, the people who keep the wheels of our economy turning. On other selected days, we pause to thank different historic individuals who have made valuable contributions to our nation.

As Jews, we always look to the Torah for a deeper perspective. What light does the Torah shed on the wonderful trait of thankfulness?

And then there is Thanksgiving. The day when we thank G‑d for enabling all the above—and for all else He does for us.

There is no doubt that this great country’s historically unprecedented success and prosperity is due to the fact that its Founding Fathers recognized that there is a Supreme Being who provides and cares for every creature. They understood that since G‑d sustains and gives life to every being, it follows that every being has certain “unalienable rights” upon which no government can impinge.

These strong morals upon which our republic was founded express themselves to this day in American life. Looking at the dollar bill and seeing “In God We Trust” is a reassurance that, as a people, we still recognize and acknowledge the Source of all our achievements.

As Jewish citizens of this land, we always look to the Torah for a deeper perspective and additional insight. What light does the Torah shed on the wonderful trait of thankfulness?

Actually, there is one particular mitzvah which is completely devoted to expressing gratitude—the mitzvah of bikkurim (Deuteronomy 26:1–12). During the Temple era, every farmer was commanded to bring to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem the first fruits which ripened in his orchard. There he would recite a passage thanking G‑d for the Land and its bountiful harvest, and the fruits were given to the kohanim (priests). The Midrash extols the great virtue of this mitzvah, going so far as to say that the Land of Israel was given to the Jews as a reward for the mitzvah of bikkurim they would observe after entering the Land!

While the importance of expressing deserved gratitude is self-understood, it is difficult to comprehend the special significance of bikkurim. Isn’t the Jewish day jam-packed with “thank you”s? The first words we utter when waking in the morning express our thanks to G‑d for returning our souls to our bodies. Thrice daily during the course of prayer, we thank G‑d for everything imaginable. Before and after eating, we thank G‑d for the food. There is even a blessing recited upon exiting the restroom, thanking G‑d for normal bodily function!

With all the thanking which occurs on a daily basis, why the need for a specific mitzvah to emphasize the point? And why the great reward for this particular form of expressing thanks?

The Rebbe points out one obvious difference between bikkurim and all the other ways we thank G‑d: bikkurim involves more than just words—it requires a commitment; the gratitude must express itself in deeds. Bikkurim implies that our thankfulness to G‑d cannot remain in the realm of emotions, thoughts, or even speech, but must also move us to action.

While the mitzvah of bikkurim in its plainest sense is not practicable today, its lesson is timeless. Our gratitude to G‑d must express itself in the actions of our daily life. Giving back the “first of our fruit,” the choicest share of the crop, is the only appropriate way to thank G‑d for giving us all our fruit.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Kalev NJ November 23, 2016

There is source evidence that the Pilgrims saw themselves as the New Israel (something we reject for various reasons). However, as a result, they modeled their first Thanksgiving after Sukkot. Thanksgiving was originally a multi-day event held earlier in the Fall (closer to the time of the biblical Sukkot). Reply

alice jena richmond hill November 26, 2015

beautiful Reply

Sandra L Johnson Highland ,Indiana November 25, 2015

I would have to say that thanking God is inherently Jewish ! We thank him daily ,hourly ,on shabbat . Giving thanks for the loving kindness and eternal tender mercy of our Hashem are hardwired into Jewish DNA ! So thanks giving is another day to thank Hashem let's eat ! Reply

James More Seasaw City November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving I think of Pilgrims and Indians sharing a meal and being thankful for what they have. Jews are thankful every sabbeth and thankful for the Torah. So I am sure Thanksgiving can pass the test of Kosher blessings. Reply

Mike Reichbach NYC December 7, 2012

Thanksgiving is an American day of appreciation for all we have. Most people have this day to help gather the family and friends together which seems more and more difficult in modern society with Jews and non Jews alike. "Thanksgiving" day is a time to share in an American Ideal in which all Jews should be thankful for and doesn't mean we should not give thanks on a daily basis. Reply

Alexa Liszcz CO, USA November 22, 2012

I give thanks for our G-d. I am thankful for our existence and prayers for peace. It is good to give thanks throughout the day everyday for our ability to do good deeds. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma November 22, 2012

This is not a day of thanks in terms of the story, the entire story, a story that involves the Pilgrims and the Grim part, what happened to the American Indian, that is actually an ongoing story, as they were put on reservations, and had their language taken away from them, and they were stripped of rights, and put into movies as the "bad guys". We had cowboys AND Indians. We should be thinking thanks not tanks, because the world is still filled with injustice, hate, and the polarizing enmities that keep people fighting, for what they each feel is just cause. It's hard to combat this, when everyone thinks they are the standard bearers. And groups have their followers, and we know about strength in numbers. But what ultimately counts, is THANKS, and I am not criticizing this article, but augmenting the story, and 'argumenting' for change in how we do business, around the world. It could be one day, and should be, every day is Thanksgiving, and for that we need a new Chapter. Reply

ornana November 22, 2012

November 24, 2011 I suggest a deeper look is taken into the true history of thanksgiving and the true nature of those so called founding fathers. As a Jewish woman it is my duty not only to know the truth about the genocide, corruption, greed and dehumanization that occured to the original inhabitants of the land. As a person of Jewish faith I denounce the atrocities that took place. This is not a day for celebration, this is a day of remembrance and reflection. Never again! Anonymous Reply

Mehrul Qadir Staines, u.k April 7, 2012

as a muslim i am impressed by the jewish meaning of chanukah. islam teaches the same doctrine of thanks giving on a hourly bases and at least five times a day.but also gives weight to put your thanks in action also as verbal thanks do not go far. on the subject of yum kapoor, i request my jewish brothers not to forget the palastinian in israel as well Reply

Proud Athiest via jelimiami.com November 24, 2011

The reason America is a success is that its founding fathers were Deists, who acknowledged the possibility of a creator but realized our fates are in our own hands. Contrast that to the social and political failure of Iran, or the malaise and constant state of war in Israel, both of which are run on the basis of belief.

Thanksgiving is just a nice legal holiday and winter shopping break. Its origins go back to the primitive beliefs of those who came well before the Founding Fathers. Enjoy your turkey, but think like a modern human being and forget old, Near Eastern tribal superstitions which have been so clearly disproven by science. Reply

NormanF Salida, CO/USA November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving, the American holiday, is based on and one might say, inspired by the Jewish autumn festivals. The closest analog would be Yom Kippur - which is based on self-denial but here it is expressed in the opposite sense: one eats the fruits of the earth and thanks G-d for the pleasures of life, that should we should live to benefit from them. Indeed, we should take joy in G-d and all His earthly works. And we're taught that everything we do in this world, whether we realize it or not, we do for the benefit of Heaven. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, z;tl, realized this and not only on Thanksgiving, which is the public expression of this human need to gratitude to One' s Creator and thereafter, the real work of appreciating G-d continues for the rest of the year and indeed for the rest of our lives. Reply

Anonymous Calabasas, CA November 24, 2011

I am most Thankful that my good friends introduced me to Chabad two years ago, enabling my formerly pessimistic outlook to transform to one of hope. Happy Thanksgiving to you all. Reply

penny robinson coeur d alene, Idaho, USA November 24, 2011

I don't have fields to plow or corners to leave for the poor, or first fruits to give in remembrance ; but what I do this season in thanksgiving is give a little of myself and favorite recipes in the form of good food. I try to be a blessing to my neighbors and friends. Reply

Dovid Klein Chicago, Illinois November 24, 2011

At this time, I want to thank HaShem(G-d) for
giving us(in general) and me(in particular)
the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem
Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. Reply

Anonymous November 24, 2011

I suggest a deeper look is taken into the true history of thanksgiving and the true nature of those so called founding fathers. As a Jewish woman it is my duty not only to know the truth about the genocide, corruption, greed and dehumanization that occured to the original inhabitants of the land. As a person of Jewish faith I denounce the atrocities that took place. This is not a day for celebration, this is a day of remembrance and reflection. Never again! Reply

James More Morris, IL November 23, 2011

If we can sup one day without the political hangups and religious differences, and be human beings just for one day, this will be one step closer to peace and prosperity with our creator. Thanksgiving, I am told, is a feast day that transcends religions under our First Amendment freedom of religion. Reply

Anonymous Metairie, La November 24, 2010

Good article. I tend to think Thanksgiving is on Thursday and the biggest holiday is Shabbot. Every Shabbos we give thanks and though it's nice to celebrate the American holiday Shabbos is the most important of days. From the Shabbos of one week we look forward to the next, giving thanks for each day we receive. Reply

Linda Cincinnati, OH November 28, 2009

So what's so terrible about sitting down with your family to eat? I'd love to do it every weekend? Do you know how lucky you are to be able to spend every Chanukah with your Dad?
I like Thanksgiving because it's a holiday that everyone in the US can celebrate. I recently changed jobs and it was nice to be able to talk about Thanksgiving plans and recipes with my coworkers in a way that won't be possible during the December holidays. Reply

Anonymous Long Branch , NJ November 26, 2009

Although we all should have a great appreciation for this great Country we live in, we should Vote , Etc, However you a missing the Mark if you should go so far as to sit down with your family on Thanks Giving Day, and Eat.
Are we going back words, did we not learn from our past, & Exiles, Lets concentrate on our own Holidays Chanukah, Purim, etc.My father was in the World War 2, & and had Thanks Giving , but today he makes Chanukah the day of family get together, Let's stay Jewish! Reply

Linda Cincinnati, OH November 26, 2009

I grew up in England which is officially a Christian country but atheism is the biggest and fastest growing belief system. Thanksgiving is not an English holiday but we had "Harvest Festival" at school. Everyone brought in produce either from their gardens or store-bought. We would arrange it artistically at the front of the assembly hall and add big loaves of bread baked in the shape of wheat sheaves. We would sing hymns such as "We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by G-d's almighty hand". The food was then delivered to elderly and needy people.
I think all of us who grew up from that, whatever our beliefs now learned that thanks is expressed through passing on G-d's generosity. Isn't giving to charity directly from your pay check the same as giving first fruits? Reply